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Freedom of Information Act

John Simkin

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David Leigh

Monday December 4, 2006

The Guardian


There is an old Yiddish joke about a man who murders both his parents. He says: "I should like the court to show mercy because I am an orphan." The same brazen spirit infects Tony Blair, who is busy murdering the Freedom of Information Act. He complained this week: "What's important to realise is this [FOI] generates an awful lot of work for government."

Although the act only came into force last year, the prime minister and "first flatmate" Lord Falconer at the Department for Constitutional Affairs are already plotting to sabotage this infant example of what a genuinely open democracy could be like. FOI has so far revealed, among other things, controversial lobbying by drug companies, shortcomings in restaurant hygiene and varying mortality rates of heart surgeons. The act is beginning to work. Yet ministers plan to introduce regulations that will choke off the growing number of information requests. They claim that they take up too much time and cost a fortune.

Why should FOI requests be so time-consuming? The bizarre answer lies in a lengthy memo obtained, ironically enough, through the same Freedom of Information Act. It reveals that ministers have set up a fantastical bureaucratic structure with the aim of obstructing inquirers at every turn.

At the Home Office for example, and no doubt in other departments, lists of requests have to be submitted twice weekly to the home secretary, John Reid, in case they are politically embarrassing. Questions from journalists have to be referred to the Department of Constitutional Affairs, which has set up a clearing house to make sure one department does not release something another might prefer to conceal.

The Home Office orders say: "All cases which fall within the DCA referral triggers or which are in any other way sensitive must be the subject of an individual submission to the home secretary ... the submission should be addressed to the home secretary and copied to the Information Policy Team, their IAP [information access practitioner], other relevant ministers, officials and press officers."

What a Kafkaesque rigamarole. To cap it all, a so-called independent report by a bunch of economists commissioned by Lord Falconer says that much of the modest £24m annual expense of FOI is due to excessive time spent on it by ministers and private office staff. This time was costed at a fictional £300 an hour. Ministers and their staff are not, of course, paid anything like this.

Having caused the problem, Blair and his ministers go on to propose two outlandish solutions. First, they say they will draw up a notional bill for all the time they plan to spend shuffling paper. Then they will refuse to answer the question on the grounds that it would be too expensive to do the work of thinking about it in the first place.

Falconer's second proposal is even stranger. Organisations - universities and schools, charities and the BBC - will be allowed to ask only four questions a year. In other words, any body such as a newspaper that tries to make use of the act will be banned from doing so.

As a piece of chutzpah, this takes some beating. Whitehall types say the underlying problem is that Derry Irvine, the former lord chancellor, pushed the act past reluctant ministers by pretending it would not cost anything. So no resources were provided.

As one who tries day after day to prise information out of a procrastinating Whitehall system, I would say that is not the real problem. The real problem is that ministers don't like daylight. And considering the poor quality of their decisions, from the construction of the Dome to Iraq, perhaps that's not surprising.

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